Thursday, May 14, 2015

Day 1: Hello, Fairbanks

Okay.  A lot has happened since I arrived in Fairbanks, and I will probably miss several details from the first few days of this trip, but it can't be helped.

So where am I now?  What's going on?  Well, yesterday I arrived in Coldfoot, Alaska.  10 of us, in a 7 vehicle caravan, made the drive ~200 miles north from Fairbanks along the Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road.  The Dalton continues an additional 300 miles or so north, to Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean.

Forgive my sketchiness on these details, but I only get a bit of Internet allotment per day, and I already spent half of it chatting with someone on Facebook.  Lesson learned, in the future I'll be communicating primarily by email.

Okay, so let's rewind a bit to this past Sunday, May 10th.  I woke up at about 4:30 AM to catch a 7:30 flight from Buffalo to Chicago O'Hare.  From there, I had a 6.5 hour flight to Anchorage, and a final short flight in a turboprop 80-passenger plane to Fairbanks.  I arrived in Fairbanks at 5:30 PM Alaska time, which is 4 hours behind Buffalo.  So it felt like 9:30 PM to me.

I took a taxi and told the driver that I had to get to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) barracks at Fort Wainwright.  These were the instructions I'd been given, and I had an address, just in case, but I didn't really know what to expect.  Turns out, Fort Wainwright is a U.S. military base (an Army "post," to use proper terminology), which I really should have seen coming.  I had to register at the front office, and the driver had to come in with me.  They took our licenses, and the driver's insurance and registration, and within about 5 or 10 minutes we each had little stamped pieces of paper that told the assault rifle-wielding guards that it was okay for us to enter.  I'm pretty sure the wait involved a mini-background check on each of us.

So I arrived at the barracks at about 6:15, and my new coworker and roommate, Joe, greeted me out front, and helped me bring my bags to our room.  Joe told me that a lot of the other people staying the barracks were "hotshots," the wilderness firefighters who risk their lives to bring wildfires under control.  The first hotshots I'd ever heard of were a crew who all died fighting a fire that suddenly changed direction and surrounded them.  I was immediately humbled by every man and woman I saw there wearing a hotshot or smokejumper t-shirt.  The smokejumpers are also wilderness firefighters, but they get dropped in by plane or helicopter and parachute into the site.  The extra equipment they bring weighs them down, which often causes leg injuries from the heavy landing.  Needless to say, around these people I felt like a serious dweeb.

At around 9 PM, Joe and I met Kelly, a higher-up at BLM who would be making sure we'd be well-prepared for our summer ahead.  Kelly took us to a place where we could buy dinner, since we'd been stuck on base without transportation, or a good idea of where to go even if we had a car.  Joe had actually arrived in the middle of the night and had been there all day.  After dinner, Kelly showed us around Fairbanks, and we saw the University of Alaska at Fairbanks (UAF), a botanical garden, and a pond where migratory waterfowl congregate, including sandhill cranes, although we only saw a couple ducks as we drove by.

Fairbanks still looks like a frontier town.  The overall architectural style is dominated by log cabin aesthetics or simple prefabricated structures.  National fast food and big box store chains generally stick to their usual look, but Kelly pointed out one store that was forced to shut down because the building was constructed without Fairbanks winters in mind.

Fairbanks is in the interior of Alaska, and the interior is shaped by extremes in temperature.  Summers can be 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and winters can get to 40 or 50 below zero, depending on where exactly you are.  The record is somewhere below -80 degrees at Prospect Creek, and no one knows for sure because the thermometer broke.

This also explains a curious thing Joe pointed out:  without exception, every car in Fairbanks has an extension cord poking out from under the hood.  And many parking lots, including the one at the BLM barracks, has an outlet in front of every parking space.  Kelly explained that cars in Fairbanks are equipped with electric heaters that get left on during the winter nights, since -40 degree temperatures cause motor oil and other fluids to freeze, and attempting to start the engine in that state would essentially destroy it.

Kelly returned Joe and I to our barracks after the tour, and I think I ended up finally getting to bed at about 11:30 PM, which felt like 3:30 AM to me, making it a 23-hour day.  Since it still looked like twilight out, it was difficult to feel sleepy, even though I was exhausted.  But we shut the blackout curtain over the window, and I finally got a few hours of sleep.

More later, and pictures will come soon.  Thanks for reading!



  1. These are great details! 😃

  2. I'm engaged, ready for your every word to come.